Reductio Ad Scalia

by Bob Schwartz

Justice Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was asked yesterday why his writings compare homosexuality to bestiality and murder. Answering a Princeton freshman, Justice Scalia said:

“It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the ‘reduction to the absurd’. If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?”

(“I thought you would have known” seems a bit of a put down. This may have something to do with Justice Scalia having attended Georgetown undergrad, as opposed to Justices Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, all of whom attended Princeton.)

This is a common theme in the logical argument against cultural and moral relativism, particularly when it comes to homosexuality. And it is a provocative argument, as far as it goes. If we are to make no moral judgments about sexuality, then each and every type and instance of behavior is a matter of choice—polygamy, bestiality, you name it. Once we admit morality, we are broadly entitled to hold to it and the distinctions we make, even in the face of popular disagreement.

This is something worth thinking about as we make private and public policy, but it is far from dispositive. Some think we are at our best and doing our best when we hold strictly—including the “strict” construction of the Constitution, or for that matter of the Ten Commandments. But the real world has a funny way of demanding flexibility and fluidity from our philosophers, lawmakers, law interpreters and enforcers.

So Justice Scalia is not entirely wrong. He and all of us are, to avoid the absurd, allowed to attach particular values to homosexuality, bestiality, polygamy, divorce, whatever. There are probably still some out there who believe that slavery is moral; we know at least that it still thrives in the world. As for killing, morals differ for different circumstances; if not we would have outlawed killing entirely, or would admit that we don’t make a clear enough distinction when we seem to be legislating hypocritically.

But the story doesn’t end when we prove logically that different morals are legitimate. In the real world, people suffer at the hands of our “moral feelings” as Justice Scalia calls them. In some ways, it’s always about the suffering. In the face of “moral feelings” among some that there was nothing wrong with slavery, much of America agreed to its greatest national conflict to relieve an equally great suffering. Those who have legitimate “moral feelings” about homosexuality and marriage might want to be weighing their profound discomfort against the suffering of millions, not to mention against the arc of history.

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